The value of a dedicated Historical Library in school
Lots of schools have fantastically well resourced libraries, catering for all manner of tastes, interests and levels. Some schools are fortunate enough to have faculty based libraries. The offerings for pupils wanting to find out about general history however, or to have further reading on topics that they are studying, are often limited to exam topics. This post outlines why I think this ought to be the tip of the iceberg and offers a few ideas on how to solve the problem without breaking the budget.
To start with here’s a personal context on this. I taught full time in 4 different Secondary Schools and Part Time in one Primary. Since leaving full time teaching I have visited numerous schools in both phases – I’ve lost count of how many. Of the Secondary Schools two had no library as such – they had Learning Resource Centres that were entirely computer based and were predominantly used as centres for cover supervisors to use. The two that did have libraries had a wide range of books, indeed quite impressive given the relatively small size of both of those schools. Not one of the schools had a dedicated area within the Library for Wider Historical reading. What they did have tended to be quite out of date and aimed very much at the highly academic (i.e. AJP Taylor for A-Level) or ‘Fun’ stuff for younger readers (Horrible Histories and suchlike).
Personally I was quite shocked by this when I first started teaching. The school I had attended had a well stocked History section and the department itself had a large selection of books on all sorts of historical topics that we could simply sign for and bring back once done with them. For me, that was one of the things that inspired my love of the subject. I may not have always liked what I was being taught but there was always an interesting alternative to take home.
Having managed departments and Faculties in each of those 4 schools and been on governing bodies etc. I am now more than well aware of the reasons why there so often aren’t dedicated areas for wider historical reading: money and space being the most obvious. However it can be done and is, in my experience at least, quietly productive with a wide range of learners.
In the first school that I taught in I had a very simple approach to solving the ‘lack of books’ problem. I simply raided my own shelves at home, sorted them into topics, popped them on a bookshelf in my classroom and had a signing out book. In essence I had simply replicated what I’d enjoyed at school.
The flaw with that approach was that I only grabbed books that related directly to the curriculum. Yes, they were helpful and extended knowledge etc. but it re-enforced the limitations of the National Curriculum / Exam specifications. The original idea was very quickly extended. Other topics were added, accessible biographies, stories from Cultures that are rarely covered in the classroom. In effect, making it a more diverse and, I think, more appealing offering for the children.
It didn’t actually cost much to achieve this either. Granted, a large proportion of this came out of my back pocket but the cost could have been borne easily by the departmental budget if I’d wanted to hand in the receipts. A simple visit to the market offered up the chance to get a huge pile of the ‘Commando’ cartoon booklets; a friend had a selection of biographies of famous historical characters that his children had grown out of; a colleague in another school was retiring and put out an offer for local teachers to grab her teaching resources… suddenly there was a large range of material there that covered things in different ways, opened up different parts of history and catered for a wider range of reading ages. (The only part of that list that incurred any cost was the cartoons – which was probably the best fiver I ever spent as it shut up some very rowdy boys quite quickly in my formative years as a teacher).
What were the advantages and benefits of introducing a dedicated departmental library?
- On a purely selfish level, it gave pupils something to do if I was late. In the first school I initiated the idea in I combined Head of History with Head of Year so was regularly ‘covered’ for five to ten minutes whilst having to deal with pastoral issues. Not ideal but in the ‘old days’ those roles were regularly combined and I’d rather have the children reading something of interest to them than a support assistant or colleague attempting to start my often weird and wonderful lesson structures.
- It provided an opportunity for differentiation. There was and still is opportunity at all levels for an element of personal study. If a pupil found a topic interest they could read up on it, ask for further information etc. and when time allowed me to offer them a chance for some structured personalised work, they had the resources at their fingertips: indeed, they had usually already done some of the background reading off their own backs.
- It was varied. As noted, it included things ranging from cartoons – and there are plenty more than the solitary example I noted. Others included things like arts and crafts books based on historical topics – good old fashioned make a model castle style books. Not highly academic but they build interest and that enables follow up questions etc.
- It supports a Whole School Literacy policy. The content is subject specific and almost always uses terminology that we as History educators want our learners to use. Every little helps as a certain company would say.
- The books often link in with other resources. If a child is reading a historical novel set in Tudor times – plenty of those around, it’s relatively easy to show them artefacts or replicas of things that are referred to in the book. That develops awareness of a sense of period and heightens the youngsters interest in the story (in the case of historical fiction) or knowledge of the period in the case of factual books.
What are the disadvantages?
- Cost can be prohibitive if the intention is to go the whole hog straight away. However a gradual build up of a library works and making use of a PTA, links with local libraries and history societies and pleas to colleagues etc. soon builds up a decent set of resources.
- Space. I was lucky in 3 of the Secondary schools I worked in as I had lots and lots of shelving space in and around the department. That clearly isn’t always the case and where rooms are shared with other departments the space issue becomes increasingly challenging.
- Management of the library. Book monitors are great but they and you are not always there. It only takes one bad day to totally wreck the organisation of the books…
- Inclusion. In schools where there are profound learning difficulties or pupils with little or no English acquiring accessible books that aren’t condescending can prove difficult. At my first school I was lucky in that we had a large department dedicated to supporting New to English and they jumped on board and actively reworked texts from our library to make them work for youngsters. That worked pretty well but I’ve not seen that sort of set up happen anywhere else so maybe I was just very lucky (or maybe they were worried as I line managed them?)